Chapter no 9 – CROWN

Lightlark (The Lightlark Saga Book 1)

Thankfully for Isla, the rulers did not dine together every meal. Some nights, Celeste, Azul, Cleo, and Oro ate on their isles. Others, they ate separately in their chambers. Group dinners were preceded by an invitation and were awkward affairs, for Isla especially, since she would sit with an empty plate in front of her. Ever since their first dinner, eight days ago now, the king had honored her request to eat in her room. Wildlings only needed a heart or two a month to survive, yet weekly hearts were to be provided— and quickly disposed of in secret.

Cleo’s constant insults also made dinners uncomfortable. The Moonling had made her distaste for her well-known, ever since that first meal when Isla had foolishly bitten back. She had regretted it ever since, especially when Celeste’s eyes would meet hers, a reminder of why it was important to stay under the radar.

Unnoticed. Unremarkable.

Isla was about to enter the dining room for one of these group dinners when she stopped suddenly.

There were too many voices inside. Dozens.




The doors opened by someone else’s hands, revealing a room filled with nobles from every Lightlark realm. Many turned to watch Isla, fear and curiosity in a battle across their features, studying her as carefully and critically as a jeweler searching for flaws in a diamond.

Every one of Poppy’s lessons pummeled into her head at once.

Back straight.

Chin up.

Shoulders down.

Look right ahead—pay them no mind. Fingers relaxed at your sides.

This was clearly a demonstration. Whoever had planned it had decided only to invite Lightlark’s nobles.

No invitation had preceded it. There were often surprises during the Centennial. You must be prepared for anything, Terra had told her.

Demonstrations were opportunities for the rulers to assess each other. To decide who was weak. To potentially win the power to choose the pairs that would work the remainder of the Centennial to figure out the prophecy. Isla racked her head for what kind of trial this could be. Her guardians had a list of demonstrations from past Centennials. Some were more elaborate than others. Quests. Challenges to tame a wild beast. Scavenger

hunts, even. Tests of physical strength, or strategy, or the mind.

There weren’t any clues around her. All she saw were tables set with wineglasses and crystal plates.

It really did look like a dinner. Her nerves curbed a bit. Perhaps it was

just a meal and the nobles were simply invited as guests.




They had seen her during the first trial, from a distance. And she had clearly caught their attention. Some of them looked too long at the parts of her dress that hugged her body. Others watched her like she might be getting ready to shed her clothes or burst into flames. A few backed away, eyes trained on her mouth and fingers, as if half expecting to see claws.

She was a temptress. A monster who subsisted on the hearts of easily seduced prey.

They thought they knew her. They knew nothing.

A few people gasped as Grim appeared beside her from thin air, making himself visible. His expression did not change.

The people who weren’t watching her before were certainly looking now. The temptress and the ruler of darkness. A winning pair.

“Grim,” she said curtly, avoiding meeting his gaze. Remembering she knew nothing about him or what he was after.

“Hearteater,” he whispered, so only she could hear it. His eyes dipped, studying every inch of her new crimson dress. The two thin straps. The simple scrap of silk of a bodice. Her waist, where the dress cinched tightly before tumbling into more sheets of fabric that clung to her body. Gloves to her elbows, which she rarely wore but had opted for, if only for a bit more coverage, the same color and material as her dress.

He looked shamelessly, eagerly, like it was important to commit every inch to memory. She had never been studied so thoroughly.

Did he mean to embarrass her? Or seduce the seductress?

His dark eyes seemed to get even darker as they met hers, and he said, “I’m not sure what I enjoy more. Seeing the way you grip a sword . . . or the way your dress grips you.”

If looks could kill, the Nightshade would be dead, and Isla would have broken the first rule of the Centennial. Grim’s lips formed a devious smile in response to her glare.

She took a step toward him, emboldened. She still wasn’t sure what game Grim was playing, but she did know he enjoyed it when she bit back.

“And I don’t know what enjoy more. Replaying the image of my sword against your throat . . . or thinking about how your heart might look on my plate.”

Grim’s dark eyes flashed with amusement. “Careful, Hearteater,” he whispered, towering over her, standing far too close. “I might just give it to you.”

For the last few moments, it might as well have been just her and Grim in the room.

Applause brought her back into the crowd. Isla turned to see that Azul had positioned himself at the head of a table already filled with the other rulers. “Welcome,” he said. “If you could all make your way to your seats, we’ll get started.”

Isla rushed to the table, grateful for an excuse to put some distance between her and the Nightshade. Though the only two remaining seats were next to each other. Perfect.

It was clear this was a demonstration, not an elaborate dinner event, even though food was being brought out by dozens of staff. Her mind began spinning possibilities. She was alert, studying every detail, mentally preparing herself for whatever trial she might face.

The nobles had settled in their seats. Isla studied the suits and dresses, all made from dazzling fabrics. The tailor must have been busy in the prior months. She wondered if he had noticed his two missing pieces yet.

But the shop had hundreds of clothes . . . it would be nearly impossible to take inventory each day.

Then again, the tailor seemed deeply committed to his profession.

Perhaps he had noticed. Would he report the theft?

Would he suspect the Wildling who had been in his shop that same morning of being the culprit?

“Let us begin,” Azul said heartily, smiling widely. The Skyling ruler had the most perfect, shining teeth she had ever seen. Tonight, he wore robes with triangle cuts along the sides, revealing markings painted across his dark skin, symbols she didn’t recognize. Some Wildlings inked themselves with needles and paint after their training or honorable feats. Isla was never allowed. Her body did not belong solely to her, Poppy said. It belonged to the realm. She was its representative, its lifeline. Even after having been born so wrong.



“Tonight, I would like to celebrate the tremendous abilities that will allow us to succeed in shattering our curses,” Azul said. “Rulers of realm, would you honor us with a demonstration of your power?”

Isla almost dropped the goblet of water in her hand she had absentmindedly reached for.

Grim’s eyes were on her cup. Her fingers were shaking against the stem, water rippling inside her glass. If she thought her legs would be steady beneath her, she might have run right out of the room.

She had no powers to demonstrate.

Grim—he could make the lights go out. He could make her disappear, or at least cause a diversion. If she asked, he would. He would love the chance to cause chaos. And, though his intentions were murky, he had helped her before.

But then she would have to explain why. She swallowed, weighing the risks.

Before she could say a word, Azul said, “Grim. We haven’t had a Nightshade on our island for centuries.” His voice was tight. Untrusting. “Would you go first?”

Grim stayed seated for a few moments, and Isla wondered what would happen if he simply ignored the ruler of Skyling. Finally, he stood.

He opened his palm.

The room changed. Suddenly, there were a hundred Grims, standing between each chair. All smirking. The ceiling cracked open, the floor split, large slabs of stone fell right onto their heads, screams pierced the air—

Everything disappeared. The room was back to normal. There was just one Grim, looking bored, as if the display hadn’t used even a whisper of his power.

The room was silent. Someone dropped a glass.

Nightshades had mind abilities, Isla knew. But this was more, a vision on a grand scale.

How dangerous would that skill be in war? Or now, in this game?

She looked over at the king. Oro watched Grim with hard eyes, like his display was a threat. A declaration of exactly what he was capable of.

“Cleo, if you would,” Azul said, a bit less excitedly. She had to come up with something. Quickly.

Terra and Poppy had prepared her for this very possibility. But their complicated plan had hinged on her already having gotten close to the king and stolen one of the enchantments he supposedly had in his personal collection, a Wildling flower able to multiply and live forever. She’d had specific directions to get it as soon as possible.

Something she had completely forgotten about, in favor of her and Celeste’s plan.

She hadn’t even spoken to the king directly since that first dinner, avoiding him as much as possible. Perhaps too much, in blatant defiance of the first degrading step of her guardians’ strategy.

Now, what would she do?

Admit her secret not only to all the nobles, but to the rulers as well?

She might as well count herself dead the second the clock chimed midnight on the fiftieth day. Not even Celeste could protect her from all the rulers. She had admitted as much.

Celeste. Isla finally looked at the Starling ruler, who was staring her down, clearly trying to get her attention for a while.

Her expression was strained, eyes wide in worry.

Isla was a burden. Always needing to be looked after. Cared for.

She didn’t know why, but she smiled back, easily, nodding her chin slightly as if to say, Not to worry, I have a plan.

Though she never had her own plan, did she? She’d only ever gone along with others’ strategies. Never her own. Not really.

Cleo was in front of their table now. Her arms lifted dramatically.

Wine red as blood shot up from every goblet, into the center of the room. She moved her hands as if petting a wild beast, and from the wine emerged a massive shark with three rows of teeth. It rushed at the crowd, falling from the sky, its monstrous jaw coming apart—but before it could

reach Cleo, her hand made a fist, and the shark froze into ice. Its teeth became mauve icicles that landed in a perfect circle around the Moonling, digging deep into the floor. The rest became a dizzying steam.



Applause rang through the room, the nobles not looking upset in the slightest that their goblets now sat empty. Cleo looked very smug as she walked back to the table.


The Starling slowly stood, shoulders tense. Isla knew her friend wasn’t nervous, at least not for her own demonstration. She walked carefully to the front, hair shimmering below the chandelier flames. Celeste raised a finger to the air.

And the room exploded.

Fireworks burst from every corner, silvery sparks showering down like miniature shooting stars. They screeched and roared, flying through the room, before shattering against the walls into silvery specks.

The crowd cooed, some reaching up to touch the stardust that fell like confetti, draping the tables in glitter. Some of it landed in Isla’s hair.

It was beautiful.

Isla’s stomach lurched, waiting for her name to be called. She needed a plan . . . a way out—

“My turn, I suppose,” Azul said, smiling good-naturedly.

The Skyling stood with grace, his cape curling behind him in a self-created breeze. He spun his wrist toward the ceiling, and the air began to ripple. Three clouds like spun sugar appeared, growing wider and wider, until their corners touched. They darkened, then lit with flashes of light— storm clouds. Thunder echoed through the room, before the clouds calmed and became white as parchment. The audience looked up in wonder as they floated down toward their heads. Their fingers went right through them. When the clouds reached their table, even Isla reached a gloved hand up, trying hard to smile while dread boiled in her stomach.

She needed to think . . . she needed help . . .

Azul took a deep breath and blew with so much force that everyone’s hair flew back, their capes cracking behind their chairs. And the clouds were no more.

The Skyling turned toward her and grinned. Now there was no doubt.

Isla’s heart was a drum in her chest as Azul spoke her name.

Powerless, powerless, powerless—the word was a chant, a taunt, so loud in her head, she wondered how no one else could hear it.

Compared to all the other rulers’ demonstrations, she felt as useless and unremarkable as a piece of coal among diamonds. But she still had to pretend for a few more weeks—long enough to find the bondbreaker.

Celeste couldn’t help her. Her guardians couldn’t help her. Grim couldn’t help her.



She had to find her strength.

Isla stood, feeling eyes on her like stage lights. Nobles whispered, disgust and fear clear on their well-powdered faces. She pressed her lips together, her plan a roughly made puzzle still forming in her head, then smiled, trying to look confident, though her knees trembled beneath her dress.

“King? Would you assist me in my demonstration?”

Oro blinked at her. Now, in his nearly always lifeless eyes, she read many things. Curiosity. Irritation. Perhaps even worry. All of it gone in an instant. He was expressionless by the time he stood, towering over her, offering his hand.

It was foolish garnering his attention after their duel, after he had looked so suspicious of her actions. But being bold was the only way she was going to get through this demonstration without having everyone question her and her abilities.

She led the king to the front of the table, her grip too tight on his hand, a sign of her nerves. “Stand there,” she ordered. Then, trying not to look at the faces that showed their outrage at her audacity at commanding the king, that were as hungry for her to fail as they were for the red meat on their plates, she walked to the opposite side of the room.

Slowly, willing her fingers not to shake, she shed her many rings, placing them on the nearest table, before a Sunling who gasped at the wealth piled in front of him. She took her gloves off and kept one clenched in her hand. With the other hand, she pulled a pin from her hair.

Not any ordinary pin. A throwing star, disguised to look like an accessory.

The room was silent, so Cleo’s voice carried as she said, “I didn’t realize you came to dinners armed, Wildling.”

Isla lifted her chin slightly, taking the cool metal into her palm. “I’m always armed,” she said.

She could have sworn she heard someone near her gulp.

Oro did not make a move, standing still before her, yards away. She did not break his gaze as she took the throwing star between her teeth. And tied her remaining glove over her eyes.

The crowd gasped, but she couldn’t see their expressions anymore. She couldn’t see anything behind the dark-red fabric.

She took the star from between her lips and put it between her fingers, its deadly sharp points digging into her skin.

Isla breathed in, slowly, as Terra’s lessons ran through her mind.

Be still, child.

Do not be easily troubled. You are a warrior.

Let them fear you.

Let them see what it means to be wild.

The star flew.

Isla heard the unmistakable clang of metal against metal as it found its mark.

She lifted the fabric from her eyes—and couldn’t help but smirk as she saw Oro, king of Lightlark, still glued in place, his gaze not on her but on the crown she had knocked from his golden head.

It clattered loudly on the ground before settling, echoing through the silent room.

Isla sauntered over to Oro, forgetting her rings. His eyes finally went to hers. She couldn’t read him in that moment and didn’t try to. Instead, she bent down and picked up his crown.

“You dropped this,” she whispered before handing it over and taking her seat once more.

She hadn’t used a drop of power in her demonstration. But no one questioned her, shocked at her nerve. Outraged.

And for just a slice of a second, she felt like the most powerful ruler in the room.

Oro was the last ruler to perform.

Isla expected fire. A raging inferno from his hand.

Instead, the king stood, placed a palm on the table—



And the stone turned to gold. It happened in waves. The metal overtook the marble, then dripped down the side and smothered the floor. In seconds, it was all gilded.

An impossible power. Thousands of years ago, it was said Starlings could make diamonds. Wildlings could make emeralds and rubies grow in their palms like flowers.

Sunlings could turn goblets to gold.

It represented a complete mastery of power.

Could he turn a person to gold? Kill them by gilding them?

Rulers decided how their trial would be judged. Azul announced that the nobles would be voting for the winner, with the caveat that they could not vote for their own realm. As if that made it fair.

It was no surprise the king won, again. He deserved to, Isla had to admit, with a display that had rendered them all speechless.

Even the Sunling nobles looked shocked. They had clearly never seen Oro use this power before.

Which only made Isla wonder what else the king was keeping secret.

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